In his new book Understanding the Founding Fathers (Aleph), writer and historian Rajmohan Gandhi attempts to answer questions, such as: Would someone like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel have led India better than Jawaharlal Nehru did? Was Mohandas Gandhi a Hindu revivalist? In an email interview with Charmy Harikrishnan, the grandson and biographer of the Mahatma answers PM Narendra Modi’s question on why BR Ambedkar resigned in 1951; comments on the Modi government’s selective appropriation of Gandhi and other national heroes; and compares the present-day rhetoric on nationalism and “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” with the founding fathers’ views. Edited excerpts:

You frame this book as a response to questions posed by two disparate individuals, Swami Sachidanand from Gu jarat and Professor Perry Anderson from the University of California. Why did you choose these two characters? 

Actually, the criticisms of Gandhi and Nehru levelled by Swami Sachidanand and Professor Perry Anderson cancelled one another. However, answering them was useful. It produced a reminder of the exceptional leadership that Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar gave to India between 1946 and 1951. My wish to answer the criticisms was independent of present-day rhetoric. The record of that old period simply needed to be set straight. None of the four figures mentioned above was perfect, but they comprised a superb team that gave our republic a start we can be proud of. A reminder of their words also serves as an antidote to some of today’s toxic rhetoric. This book is a welcome by-product.

How valid is Modi’s and the Sangh Parivar’s belief that Patel would have made a better PM than Nehru, not least because Patel died in 1950?

An imagined Patel 10 or 20 years younger than he was in 1947 may well have made a wonderful PM, and possibly a better PM than Nehru. But the actual Patel of 1947, who was 14 years older than Nehru, was too unwell to be PM. Two months before his death in December 1950, he said that the choice of Nehru as PM had been the right one. Can anyone claim that Patel made that remark only to please someone? That would only be slandering the great man, whose tongue was always true to his mind.

With all the friction between them, Nehru and Patel were, above all, partners who wonderfully complemented each other with their gifts and also their constituencies.Nehru carried the masses and the intellectuals with him, and Patel carried the party and the civil services. Their supposed rivalry was not even a tenth as important as their collaboration.

Moreover, in 1946-47 the people of India loved Nehru and overwhelmingly wanted him as PM. Between 1947 and 1950, no one, neither Patel nor anyone else, suggested that Patel should have been PM. It was only decades later that hypothetical and pointless `if only’ questions were introduced.

FM Arun Jaitley said that `the ideology of nationalism guides our beliefs and philosophy’. How different is this from the founding fathers’ view of nationalism? 

Gandhi’s understanding of nationalism as expressed in Hind Swaraj in 1909, more than 100 years ago, never changed. He wrote then: `India cannot cease to be one nation because people belonging to different religions live in it… Those who are conscious of the spirit of nationality do not interfere with one another’s religion… In no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous terms; nor has it ever been so in India.’ As for Ambedkar, this is what he wrote in a preface dated January 1, 1945, to the second edition of his significant book, first published in 1941, Thoughts on Pakistan: `It is a pity that Mr Jinnah should have become a votary and champion of Muslim Nationalism at a time when the whole world is decrying against the evils of nationalism… But isn’t there enough that is common to both Hindus and Musalmans, which if developed, is capable of moulding them into one people?… If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country…’ Compare the Sangh Parivar’s view of nationalism with these two conceptions and draw your own conclusions.

Should a refusal to say Bharat Mata Ki Jai be considered as disrespect to the Constitution? 

When demonstrators in Mumbai supporting the abortive naval mutiny of February 1946 tried to force Mumbai-wallahs to shout Jai Hind, Gandhi responded by saying that to `compel a single person’ to `shout Jai Hind’ was to drive a nail `into the coffin of Swaraj in terms of the dumb millions of India’ (Harijan, March 3, 1946).

Bharat Mata Ki Jai was favoured by many of our founders. I do not know whether Dr Ambedkar was enamoured of it. But forcing, coercing, or compelling anyone to recite any slogan, no matter how noble, is a violation of the constitutional guarantee of free speech, which includes the right to remain silent. Forcing you or me to say something is the only issue here, not the nobility of a slogan. When compulsion is legitimised, the weak -the helpless, the excluded, Dalits -are the worst sufferers. Then you are empowering the bullies.

What do you think of the selective appropriation of the founding fathers by the Sangh Parivar and the BJP government -when Gandhi’s cleanliness is celebrated but not his pluralism; when Ambedkar is lauded in broad terms but his rejection of Hinduism is swept un der the carpet?

This double-speak is so obvious. Still, I welcome the selective praise given by the Hindu Right to Gandhi and Ambedkar. It gives everyone the chance to ask leaders of BJP and the Sangh Parivar at any level, local, state or national: `What do you think of Gandhi’s insistence on pluralism? What is your comment on Ambedkar’s apprehensions of Hindu Raj?’

PM Modi said at the 6th Ambedkar lecture: `Why was it that Dr Ambedkar had to resign from the ministry? This part of history is either forgotten or diluted.’ How do you respond to that?

That resignation, which occurred in 1951, was indeed unfortunate. But why did Ambedkar resign?
Because an obdurate Hindu Right (which had its presence in the Congress as well) was pressurising Nehru against the Hindu Code Bill which was piloted by Ambedkar with Nehru’s strong support.

Even when mouthed for purely political reasons, expressions from the Hindu Right in support of Dalit rights, and for equality among Hindus, should be welcomed. Yet a key question must be asked.Will the Hindu Right also demand justice for Muslims? Or does it only long for an anti-Muslim `consolidation’ of Hindus?
The Hindu Right should ask itself: Why did Gandhi, and Ambedkar, and Patel, and Nehru, all four of them, oppose Hindu Raj? Why did they find Hindu Raj very different from liberty and justice for all?

What do you make of the persecution of Kanhaiya Kumar, on the charges of being anti-national, and the celebration of him? 

It is only on TV that I have seen and heard Kanhaiya Kumar. He seems to be remarkably clear in his thinking and wise in his speaking, and remarkably resilient as well. Many, including me, have high expectations from him. I pray that he will remain true to himself and will neither be cowed down by attacks nor fooled by praise.